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The Comedy of Rage

When Philip Weinstein read Jonathan Franzen ’81’s third and fourth novels, The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010), he was stunned. 

The Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus of English Literature wondered why he had not recognized the power in the author’s earlier work and decided to write a book analyzing his reaction. Franzen, whom he had known not as a student but as a fellow teacher and friend, agreed to the book, including Weinstein’s stipulation that he not read it until it was finished.

The research for Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage, “a literary study within a biographical frame,” was conducted primarily through reading, email, and a long interview. Its central premise is that Franzen had to develop a kind of humorous detachment in order to write a truly great novel.

“The story of the life and the stories in the work are wonderfully interrelated. The work becomes friendlier as Franzen becomes a more accomplished and mature writer,” Weinstein says. “The comedy really helps him. It makes the novels accessible to a wider range of readers.”

Q&A: Philip Weinstein

How did you choose English literature as your field?

It’s almost embarrassingly simple. I had an 11th grade teacher in Memphis, Tenn. who came to us, it seemed, out of nowhere. It was like technicolor after you’re used to a black-and-white film. He really cared about the material—it felt like his life was at stake. After a year with him, I thought, it just doesn’t get better than that. So that’s when I decided to be an English major.

And from that point on, it was like I’d put out my wares and people with the appropriate authority would say, that’s good! Do more of that. I ended up getting a doctorate at Harvard, teaching there for a few years, and then coming to Swarthmore in 1971.

I have always refused to teach books that I didn’t care about. But the ones I care about, they rehearse your own life for you when you read them. I have, ever since 11th grade, gone where that took me. And it’s taken me to great places. I just groove on the versions of life that literature is there to express.


How did you end up focusing on modern literature?

I knew early on it was going to be novels because narrative speaks to me. I’m interested in how things happen in time, and novelists are those writers who are interested in how people’s lives unfold in time.

And then what I loved about the modernist novel was it got rid of predictable plot and it started to follow the sequences, I thought, in more intimate ways. It got free of certain conventions for how things have to come out. I was drawn to writers like Proust and Joyce and Faulkner so I invented a course on them at Swarthmore in 1975 and taught it for 30 years.

For the great stories that do come out as stories, I go to the great 19th century novelists—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Dickens.

Apart from the great 19th century novelists and the 20th century modernists, there’s not a lot of reading that I return to.


Faulkner died in 1962, the same year you graduated from Princeton, so he was still alive when you discovered him. Did that, and the fact that he was also a Southern white male, make his work seem more immediate to you than it might have otherwise? To what extent was the world you grew up in represented by Faulkner?

I grew up in segregated Memphis, and I know that my most enduring bond with Faulkner’s work has to do with how he addressed race trouble. He was creatively troubled by race.

In 11th grade, the same year I had the wonderful English teacher, I had an awful chemistry teacher, and he decided one day in 1957 that, rather than teaching chemistry, he would tell us what terrible things were going to happen (thanks to Brown v. Board of Education) when “they” come. So my twin brother [Arnold Weinstein, now Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University] and I both raised our hands and said, “Why do you think that?” And he just looked at us and said, “You guys got to be a couple of nigger lovers.” And it marked me.

There was a black woman who had cared for us. She didn’t live with us but came to work at our house five days a week. She was like a version of my mother—different from, but like, a mother—and I knew she wasn’t a “nigger” and that word just roiled. We would have gone to the East to college anyway, but I realized I never wanted to live among people where that was an issue, where you had to argue about the humanity of black people.

I hadn’t even read Faulkner then but I recognized when I got to Faulkner that, unlike most of his peers in the South, he was guilt-ridden and concerned about this and trying to figure it out. And he couldn’t figure it out, and I find that touching, too. But he stayed there.

White guilt over the abuse of black people—that meant something to me.

At Harvard where I taught a course this spring, and at Swarthmore, too, the kids often didn’t get what the fuss was all about. It takes some historical imagination; you just have to keep reminding them about the terrible history of race relations in America. (Of course now it’s in the news in other ways.) But you can still make that trouble come to life, and the Faulkner I teach, that’s what he’s doing.


Given your most recent books [on Franzen & an e-book called Simply Faulkner], are you writing more for a general audience now rather than an academic one?

If you’re in the academy and teach at the college level, you necessarily spend your time writing for people who know more than you do. You miss out on so much if you don’t try to write for people who know less than you do about the topic. And to reach them you’ve got to speak in a syntax and vocabulary and level of argument that they can access. And I find that is a terrific challenge.

This book I’ve just written on Faulkner is in a series called Simply ___ —you fill in the name.

The editor kept wanting me to make it clear in the first 10 seconds of an encounter with a sentence what I wanted the reader to think. And I wanted to write sentences that would provoke but not necessarily have a clearly projected response. I felt like I was running up against the difficulty of writing for people who really want “a good read,” and I just can’t write for people who want no more than that. I want to write for literate people who are willing to think but don’t need special training to get what I’m saying. But they do have to think.


Do you have any current reading that you’re particularly enjoying?

One of the fantasies of being retired is that you’ll finally catch up with all those things you haven’t been reading. So I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern on Lucretius.

I’m re-reading Moby Dick for a course I’m teaching on the Island [PW and his wife Penny now live full-time on Martha’s Vineyard] called “American Baroque,” in which we’re also reading Absalom, Absalom. Two gorgeous books, written in very high-flown English. No one’s ever flown higher. I used to teach Moby Dick at Swarthmore, but I haven’t taught it in 20 years.

I just read Adam Haslett ’92 [a former student of both PW and Jonathan Franzen]. His new novel that is called Imagine Me Gone.

I want to read things without footnotes, or where the footnotes don’t essentially matter.

I would like to re-read Stendhal. I’ve never read Montaigne. I’d like to become educated before I die, and read some of these writers that I’ve known about forever. It’s sort of reading across the board. Some of it will be canonical, some will not. And I would like every year to read the current Pulitzer Prize novel and the current National Book Award novel.


Have you had the experience of re-reading certain authors or books at different points in your life and discovering your assessment of them has changed?

Two years ago on the Island I taught War & Peace for three months, and I just like it more and more whenever I teach it.

This last year I taught Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov to the same large group of Islanders, and the books both looked different than when I had taught them last. I felt the oppressive weight, the absence of joy in Anna Karenina more than I’d been aware of when I was younger. With The Brothers I felt like maybe this is actually a brilliant young intellectual’s book, even though he was old when he wrote it. I think it was a hard slog for many people to take on the metaphysics of Dostoyevsky.


Please tell me about your experience of teaching over the years.

One of the hardest things for me with teaching is to listen without losing my train of thought, because you really can’t listen well unless you’re willing to lose your train of thought, and then it’s not good when you’ve lost it! It’s a challenge involved in the best of teaching, I think.

I miss the unpredictableness of questions I would get at Swarthmore. Just the drama of trying to get the students to be honest, be spontaneous, try something out in your presence—that, for me, was always not easy. But that’s what teaching was. I was always learning how to do it.

I think now that what you REALLY want for those 20-year-old students in your literature classes is for them to be active readers the rest of their lives. There’s no formula for this, but you need to teach them in such a way that they come out of that class thinking, I’m going to do more of this.

With the Martha’s Vineyard residents, they’re on the Island—the way that students are at the College—because they want to be. It’s a chosen environment. And most of these people are readers, making it fun to teach them. For it to work, I have to make sense to them.

I think what they want more is to learn about dimensions of the book they will have gone through but still need mapping for. They want me to supply some of that mapping. It isn’t just “lay out the plot,” but tap into the resonance: go to the scenes and patterns and show that what’s happening here is actually resonating elsewhere, too. It’s seeing how the piece carries the larger pattern. You almost have to go at it a second time.

I mean, that’s been the joy for me as a teacher. I go at these books so often that I feel the larger pattern resonating in the piece, better than someone who has read it only once.


What are your plans for the future?

Here on the Island I have 75 or 100 people who sign up every fall for this course of talks. We started with Faulkner, then Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and now this year Melville and another Faulkner. I’ll do that every year.

I also teach Swarthmore alums in Boston in the Lifelong Learning at Swarthmore program that Gil Rose [Susan Lippincott Professor Emeritus in classics] set up years ago. It’s the pleasure of teaching grownups and, even better, these are Swarthmore grownups. I’ll do one on the 20th century short story this year.

I’m not sure what my writing work is going to be, but it will be for the general public. I’m trying to write an autobiographical piece entitled The Man Who Loved Literature. I find my dramas in literature and discovered early on I could relay them to others in a way that could be enlivening, and so made a career of it. And I found I could write those dramas, too.

There’s an abiding narrowness to my involvement with literature that I’m trying to take stock of, now that I’m not teaching and writing so much. The terrain of nonliterariness is richer and deeper and bigger and more real than that of literature and of course you can’t go through life without being in that terrain, but I’ve had this special fondness for life when it enters literary illumination, and I now think that there’s something slightly comic about that, too.

But I can’t imagine a sense of fulfillment without returning to the books I care about.